The steady decline in NFL television ratings has been the biggest story of the football season, and arguably the biggest sports-business story of 2016. What is clear is that interest in watching primetime NFL games has waned, but what remains unclear are the exact causes, and which causes have had the largest impact.
Now recent reports suggest that one of the factors dismissed by many has in fact had a definite impact: player protests during the national anthem, led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Four weeks into the season, the NFL blamed the ratings dip on the “
But the trend did not reverse for good, and the ratings crisis is anything but over.
Week 11 was a mixed bag, with Thursday night and Sunday night up over the year before but Monday night down. Week 12 was worse, with both Thursday and Sunday down and only Monday up.
Ratings fell precipitously in Week 13, which just wrapped up on Monday. Sunday Night Football declined and Monday Night Football majorly declined. Only Thursday’s game, between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, saw a ratings increase over the year before.
Prior to the election, the average number of games watched was down 9.6% compared to 2015, as Fox Sports programming SVP
In other words, it wasn’t just the election.
Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in the NFL preseason as a protest to injustices against people of color, and he has done so in every game this season. More than 40 NFL players have followed Kaepernick’s lead, either by taking a knee, sitting on the bench, or standing with a raised fist, including stars like Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster, and New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett. And athletes outside of football have joined the protests, like U.S. Women’s soccer team star Megan Rapinoe. But Kaepernick remains the face of the protests.
Every time Yahoo Finance has written about the NFL ratings decline, Yahoo readers have shouted in our comments and on Twitter that the biggest reason for the decline is Kaepernick’s anthem protests. “I can tell you why, it is because diehard fans like me have been insulted by the owners and the NFL allowing these players to kneel or sit during the national anthem,” one reader wrote. “TOTAL DISRESPECT to America. WE are protesting. I have not watched a game this year yet.” Another reader wrote, “When the players stop disrespecting this nation and our Flag then I might start watching games again.”
Many readers flooded me with direct messages to hammer home the point. “You can try and hide what happened,” said one. “We have reduced watching the NFL as long as they support the disrespect to our flag. Just tell NFL America is taking a knee.” Another wrote “There’s only one reason the ratings are in the trash. Colin Kaepernick 7.”
Donald Trump agrees. At a rally in Colorado in October, he said “the NFL is way down” and pointed to the campaign and Kaepernick as the reasons. “Honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL,” he said. “And the other reason is Kaepernick.” The crowd loudly booed at mention of the quarterback.
At first blush it may be hard to believe a small personal act that takes place before games even begin is causing people to boycott the league. And as many outlets wrote early on, there was no hard evidence that any significant number of people were boycotting their watching of the NFL because of their outrage at the protests.
“No analysis exists to support claims of a boycott,”
But the Seton Hall Sports Poll begs to differ. In late October, a poll of 841 adults by phone (conducted by the Sharkey Institute at Seton Hall University) found that
Seton Hall conducted another poll the next month, and asked the question a little differently. The
Of course, respondents can lie on a poll. Look no further than the presidential election polls, which predicted almost across the board, with only two or three exceptions, that Hillary Clinton would win. One of the most popular theories as to why the polls got it so wrong was the existence of “
Shawne Merriman, a well-known veteran linebacker who left the league in 2012, does not approve of the anthem protests, but dismisses the idea that they are hurting ratings. “That’s garbage,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “I don’t approve of him doing it, and if I was his teammate, I would be pissed off. But I respect his right to do it. I don’t believe one bit that NFL ratings dropped because of that. We only hear from the angry people, who tweet these things or write these things in the comments on stories, and they’re just so avid that people think it’s a large number of people, but it’s not. You hear from them over and over again so you might think it’s the consensus, but it’s not the consensus. It’s like people who said everyone hates Trump. Well, how the hell did he win the election if everyone hates Trump?”
Merriman’s theory is that
But Elizabeth Lindsey, who works on NFL brand partnerships at Wasserman, believes the protests have been a ratings factor. “I do think some of the player protests probably offended some people,” she tells Yahoo Finance. “I can’t go as far as to say that it’s the definitive reason, but I think it would be short-sighted and dismissive to say it’s having no impact. I think it’s something people should pay attention to. It’s worthy of considering as an issue.”
To be sure, the factors for declining ratings are numerous: the election (up until Nov. 8); the rise of cord-cutting; the proliferation of clips and highlight videos on social media as an alternative to watching a whole game; an increase in penalties during the game; disgust over the league’s ongoing head injury crisis, which was the subject of a big-budget Will Smith film, “Concussion,” last year; potential fatigue from NFL games happening three nights a week.
The player protests are just one of these many factors, and it’s impossible to say just how much they’re contributing to the decline—but what is clear is that they are contributing. The ratings effect of the protests is not zero—they are having a net negative effect.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @